Finding Our Center: Mental Calm Through Physical Equilibrium
By Nancy Blanning
It is hard to anticipate how things will unfold in this coming school year. The pandemic is posing another switcheroo on us. Our optimism made us sure that the really hard times were behind us and that we could relax our vigilance. But the virus’s continuing spread is reawakening fears and worries of uncertainty.
We see agitated behavior in the children, a kind of scatteredness of not knowing what to do or which direction to go next. As grownups, we are supposed to know the right next thing to do. The children are reassured when their adults share the confidence that we will figure everything out as it comes. Many children habitually ask their teachers and parents, “What’s next?” This can be seen as an impatient, insatiable hunger for novelty. Yet in these times now, it might instead be an anxious question of, “Do you know what is next? Will there be a next?” Even when we think we know what is coming, it might change.
Yes, we are an anxious bunch of humanity right now. It is easier to have a plan if we know what to expect. Basically, the only thing we can expect is to expect the unexpected. The solid ground beneath our feet is shaky and trembling. We feel disoriented and unsure of direction. To achieve a sense of stability, we need a center point within our own being from which to plan so we can walk into the future. Yet, our sense of centeredness is elusive and wavering. How do we re-find our center and stability within our soul-life?
Previous columns have described how meditation and mindfulness practices can help us find our adult center. Doing such practices provides soothing nourishment for the soul. Through guiding our thoughts, we can achieve some calming of the frantic twirling and whirling in the mind.
But what is happening in our soul lives is also strongly connected with how we are experiencing the world in our physical body through our senses—particularly through balance and through sensing how we move. We can see this happening all the time when we watch little children.
In the first three years of life, little children devote themselves to coming into uprightness and developing a secure, stable stance upon the earth. They explore space. They roll, scooch on their bellies, creep on hands and knees, run, jump, hop, twirl and whirl, and jump in place some more.
Their general movements may look random, sometimes even chaotic. But when careful observation is applied, a general motif emerges. The child explores the three different planes of space in order to find balance—front and back, above and below, and right and left. To master uprightness and stand firmly and securely on the earth, each of these directional pairs needs to find a relationship to and cooperation with the others. When this is achieved, the human being experiences equilibrium and becomes calmer. It is as though the body says, “Ahhhhh. I know where I am. I can rest for a moment.”
Equilibrium is an interesting word. It does not mean holding balance in a static way. Rather, Collins Dictionary defines equilibrium as “a state of balance or equality between opposing forces; a state of balance or adjustment of conflicting desires, interests, etc.”[i] Finding equilibrium is the ability to adjust, to move in response to influences that knock us off balance, to re-discover and re-establish the center point of stability—again and again and again. Balancing is an activity we constantly do.
Physically exploring these three planes of space can be a gateway to finding the inner experience of equilibrium that we seek. Children do this all the time through their play and through traditional games that they love and can play endlessly. Playing these old-time games with our children will be a wonderful enrichment—as well as parental help in difficult moments when we all need to re-center—for our families.
The WECAN publication of Please, Can We Play Games? by Waldorf early childhood educator, Ruth Ker, is a highly recommended resource for teachers, parents, and other care-giving grownups. We are sincerely encouraged to create our own repertoire of traditional games and limber ourselves up enough to play them with our children.
But what can we adults do for ourselves to find physical and emotional centeredness in subtle ways that take little time? We can also explore the three planes of space quite literally in non-embarrassing ways through our own body movement. Once you have practiced this in the privacy of your own home, you can literally do this with internal movements while standing in the grocery line.
Begin by standing upright and still. In whatever way you are comfortable, begin by allowing gravity to sink your body down. Bend your knees, sag shoulders forward, bow the head. Then rise in posture, stretch arms upward and rise onto tiptoe or just feel the stretch of your body toward the heavens. Repeat this at least three times. Then gently sway from side to side, again with repetition. Lastly, rock your body forward then back. Repeat the sequence, each time reducing the actual physical movement to become more and more subtle, finally stretching, swaying, rocking to a stop.
Something profound happens through this very simple activity that can take only minutes. The three semicircular-canals of the inner ear, which inscribe the three planes of space in the physical body, have been stimulated to feel equilibrium with one another and come to rest and centeredness. When the physical body has achieved this, the soul can follow and remember spiritual truths of guidance and protection that are always with us but so easily forgotten in times of trouble and stress.
When these movements have been practiced physically, almost negligible movements of the head will recreate this experience when we need it in moments of disorientation. The body will remember the mood of calm that this spatial exploration has stimulated. This can become a way to find our way home again, to the secure center of our being. Equilibrium of body leads to equanimity of soul. May both be ours.
Nancy Blanning is a long-time early childhood educator with a special interest in movement and healthy early childhood development. She serves as both lead kindergarten teacher and educational support staff at the Denver Waldorf School. She is co-director of Waldorf Early Childhood Teacher Training at Sunbridge Institute in Spring Valley, NY, and is guest faculty at other teacher training programs. Nancy is editor of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association journal, Gateways, has edited several books, and is author of Walking with Our Children: The Parent as Companion and Guide. She and DWS colleague, Laurie Clark, have written and published movement imaginations for Waldorf early childhood teachers, Movement Journeys and Circle Adventures, Vol. 1 and 2.
[i] “Equilibrium Definition and Meaning: Collins English Dictionary.” HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/equilibrium.